A pod of spinner dolphins at Samadai Reef. Photo by Annetee 2014 – one of Ehab’s happy customers
Marsa Alam has one of the most important dolphin habitats in the Red Sea and the world. Samadai reef, more commonly known as “Dolphin House,” is the home to a large family of around sixty spinner dolphins.If that isn’t enough for you dolphin enthusiasts, you will be happy to learn that up to a hundred more spinners visit the reef on a regular basis with occasional visits by other dolphin species such as the bottle nose.
Samadai Reef is deservedly one of the most popular tourist attractions in Marsa Alam, and it lies a mere eleven kilometers or six nautical miles south east of the Marsa Alam anchorage.
In February 2013, a local conservationist group – HEPCA ( the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association ) took over the management of the site in order to ensure the enforcement of rules limiting the number of visits allowed. Restrictions designed to protect the dolphins and their fragile reef habitat.
The spinner dolphin population at Samadai, although usually around sixty, can vary greatly on a daily basis from as few as three to as many as
210 one day in 2004 ( according to The Journal of the Marine Biological Association
) and 176 on a single day in 2012 ( Trip Advisor Dolphin House Forum
24.12.12 ).Some of the extra numbers are sometimes made up of occasional (once or twice per year) visitors but the majority frequent the reef on a year round basis.When you arrive you may well catch a sight of some spinners surfacing to breath. However you may be surprised to learn that some of them may be asleep.Dolphins do not enjoy the same depth of sleep as humans as their breathing has to be done in a conscious manner and marine biologists have observed that they sleep with one half of their brain alert while the other rests. So as they sleep they continue to swim slowly and surfacing regularly to breathe.However you will often encounter active dolphins especially by early afternoon. They are extraordinarily playful and there are even accounts of these dolphins enjoying surfing near the reef.”I spent a wonderful time watching the divers surfing with the dolphins up and down the waves,” recounts one visitor on TripAdvisor “My abiding memory was all of us sitting (and watching from) the boat doing “high 5s.” ( Swingingsultan 31 January 2012
If you want to learn more about dolphins you will find many interesting questions answered on our dolphins FAQ page.
WHICH SEASON IS BEST ?
There is probably a seasonal element also which determines your chance. Earlier studies have shown that the average population number of dolphins at the reef is at its’ lowest between February and April but then reaches a peak in the May to July period some six to eight times greater than the winter/spring minimum. Numbers then recede gradually during the autumn until the winter. TripAdvisor comments also seem to indicate that visitors in the summer tend to be luckier but there is no absolute rule as sheer luck still plays a big role.
WHAT IS THE REEF LIKE ?
Samadai reef forms a horse shoe shape 1.4km long and 1km wide with a shallow sandy partially enclosed lagoon at the northern end of around 6-7 metres in depth and around 350 X 400 metres surface area, providing a shelter with calm quiet water for the resting dolphins.The surface reef lies to the north and east of the lagoon shielding it from the prevailing northerly winds but the dolphins need only two minutes to swim to the open waters with the reef dropping gradually down to 15 metres depth near its’ southern edge but then with sudden steep drop-offs descending to 200 metres on the western and 600 metres on the eastern side.It is however a very safe place for swimming providing you follow the advice you will be given on arrival and the sea at Dolphin House is beautifully warm year round (23C in January and 29C in August) while the underwater visibility is excellent at up to 30 metres.Divers will be well rewarded as there is a beautiful underwater cave-like canyon on the western edge of the lagoon which takes about five to ten minutes to swim through.And you won’t be disappointed if you don’t see dolphins because the reef is also home to a highly diverse range of flora and fauna, hard and soft coral, occasional barracuda and reef sharks (in deeper waters) as well as a myriad of fish species.
One of the underwater highlights, not far from the anchorage, is an amazing “amenon city” – plant-like animals with poisonous (too touch) tentacles – with a large number of colourful clownfish. Remember the star of the animation film “Finding Nemo” – Now you’ve got the picture !
Divers and swimmers should be cautious and carefully follow your guide’s advice, as although the lagoon is generally a relatively sheltered and safe place to swim with mostly light currents, there are places around the reef where the currents can be strong.
IMPORTANT ENVIRONMENTAL RESTRICTIONS
A maximum of ten boats daily are allowed to enter the reef area carrying not more than 175 snorkelers and 100 divers. Boats with snorkelers are allowed access between 10am and 2pm while boats with divers between 9am and 3pm. Don’t worry about being turned back. If your organizer has already obtained a ticket to enter the reef area this guarantees that you will be allowed in.
The first thing you will notice on entering the lagoon is that there are buoys clearly marking off the snorkelers and divers areas from the “dolphins only” resting area. So please keep within your designated area. Don’t worry as your guide will point them all out to you when you arrive.
If you go snorkeling you will have to wear a lifejacket partly for safety and partly to prevent the occasional over enthusiastic snorkeler diving under the water to chase the dolphins.
However perhaps the most important rule is to never touch or feed the dolphins. It will be tempting but can be surprisingly risky as they are large, powerful and sometimes unpredictable and can inadvertently injure a swimmer or diver.
Touching can also lead to the transmission of human diseases to which dolphins may have no immunity and long term may serve to damage their independence and survival instincts.
So if a dolphin approaches you try to remain as inactive as safely possible – do not try to engage it in play. You should only be a passive quiet spectator. Never follow or chase a dolphin but allow it to decide if it wishes to approach you.
If you are on a boat watching a school of dolphins then please do not whistle or call out to them as this may scare them. And if you are relaxing on the boat in the reef area please keep any conversation or music at a reasonably low volume.
Also be extremely careful about swimming close to female dolphins with calves. A calf will look significantly smaller than an adult and will usually swim in close association with its’ mother. The most likely time to see calves here is in the May to July period and especially in June.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE 2001-3
At the start of this millenium Marsa Alam changed virtually overnight from being a remote coastal village in to one of the Red Sea’s top diving resorts. In the first year, 2000, some six thousand tourists went on diving or snorkeling trips in the region, but by the next year that figure had increased by over twenty fold to over 130,000 and in 2002 it reached 225,000.Dolphin House Reef suddenly became a popular but unregulated attraction with up to thirty boats with hundreds of tourists mooring daily. Many inexperienced divers and snorkelers inadvertently damaged the reef or disturbed the resting dolphins who normally sleep during the day time and dolphin numbers declined.
So in 2004 new environmental regulations restricting the number of visitors were introduced together with a zoning plan and education initiatives to help protect both the dolphins and their beautiful, but fragile, habitat. Observers noticed an almost immediate increase in the resident dolphin population.So far these new measures seem to have achieved a successful balance between enhancing Egypt’s tourist industry, a vital part of the local and national economy, while at the same time sustaining this invaluably precious and unique ecosystem.